Their writing has all the sensitiveness an' feeling that makes music cool to listen to
you will probably call it contemporary blues--
it could be that if you want it to be
it doesn't matter just let it pass through you.
Those are just some of Donovan's groovy liner notes for the Moody Blues' first album, The Magnificent Moodies, released in 1965. Imagine the run-on sentences that might've spilled out of the Hurdy Gurdy Man's quill if he was asked to scratch liner notes for the follow-up, Days of Future Passed. He'd have been creaming in his caftan!
That album's back sleeve told a completely different tale: "They have extended the range of pop music and found the point where it becomes one with the world of the classics."
Visionary truth or pompous fluff, there's no denying the Moodies became a different band once guitarist Justin Hayward and bassist John Lodge joined in 1966. The twosome replaced Denny Laine and Clint Warwick, who both left to pursue varying degrees of obscurity. At least Clint Warwick didn't have to play second fiddle to Linda McCartney in Wings.
Time Traveler, A&M's new, five-CD Moody retrospective, gives us all yet another reason to feel sorry for Denny Laine. The retrospective ignores Laine and the "Go Now" era entirely, instead preferring to start the saga with Hayward's and Lodge's earliest contributions--a pair of UK singles from 1967 never before released on these shores. The long journey through days of Moodies passed concludes with a bonus CD, eight previously unreleased performances from the band's highly successful 1992 Red Rocks concert.
There, as on the group's groundbreaking second album, the Moodies performed with a full orchestra, something the quartet will do in every city of the band's current North American jaunt. And for towns lacking a symphony, the Moodies' people will scrounge one up. (The Valley of the Sun's own Phoenix Symphony Orchestra couldn't make the upcoming Desert Sky gig, so local musicians were procured to form--ta-da--the Phoenix Festival Orchestra!)
There're a thousand, million questions about hate and death--and the Moodies--to ask John Lodge, who happily obliges via transatlantic phone. Lodge wrote many of the band's enduring hits, such as "Ride My See Saw," "Isn't Life Strange" and "I'm Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll Band." For most of this particular Saturday afternoon, he has been holed up in the band's recording studio/headquarters in Surrey, England, no doubt working diligently on new songs addressing the eternal riddles confounding mankind since the dawn of time.
"I'm actually playing a CD-ROM game called Mist at the moment. I got sort of sidetracked," the truant Moody sheepishly confesses. "You're not given any information [in this game], it's brilliant. It's like doing a jigsaw puzzle with all the same-colored pieces." Ah, another day's useless energy spent.
Unlike playing Mist, Lodge found himself with plenty of guidelines to follow after joining the Moodies 28 years ago. Once upon a time, being a Moody Bluesman meant performing "Go Now," some James Brown covers and wearing what Lodge sneeringly refers to as "the Moody Blues uniform, all going to the same tailor, nothing to distinguish us except for our different-colored hair."
"It wasn't what any of us wanted to do at all. That's when we decided to live in Belgium and in Paris to write all new music. We threw away the suits, the identity clone kit, and started going onstage in a pair of jeans and a tee shirt."
With the new, less stylish wardrobe and the bulk of Days of Future Passed written, the band returned to swinging London to premire its new sound at the Marquee Club, once home to the Stones and the Who.
Juxtaposed against the Stones' self-serving pleasure-seeking ("I can't get no satisfaction") and the Who's self-destructive braggadocio ("Hope I die before I get old"), it's no wonder the Moody Blues' new incarnation as Five Men Pondering the Mysteries of the Universe met with considerable resistance from the Ready Steady Go crowd. To them, these guys sporting Vandykes, mustaches and stern, arched eyebrows looked less like rock stars than they did characters from Parker Brothers' Clue game. But more to the point, the music was different! As the kids on American Bandstand might have said off-camera, "It's got a good beat, but you can't dance to this shit!"
"A lot of the places we were playing were telling us, 'We don't want you back because you don't play dance music,'" says Lodge. "Most bands would play one song in a particular tempo all the way through and carry on with another song in that same tempo. Not only did we not do that, a lot of our songs had two different tempos." Those of you playing along at home, just try fruggin' to "Tuesday Afternoon" for the irrefutable proof.
Yet the band was ahead of its time by a few short months; soon underground psychedelic clubs and a burgeoning college circuit sprang up in the UK, primed for new, mind-expanding music. If, according to Lodge, "success is when opportunity meets preparedness," then the Moody Blues were prepared for a lot more than the four singles a year they were contracted to deliver to Decca Records. When the label asked if the "beat group" would record a classical piece with the London Festival Orchestra to be used as a stereo demonstration disc, everything suddenly fell into place.
"They wanted us to do Dvork's New World Symphony, take the different melodies and put lyrics to them. We said we'd like to do this, but we want the studio for ourselves 24 hours a day for the week. And they agreed."
Those naughty Moodies! Not only did they never get around to Dvork, they recorded the very songs that had been irritating go-go dancers at the Marquee--with the London Festival Orchestra at their disposal, no less! Freed from traditional 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. time constraints in the studio, the lads began to experiment with overtures, undertures, backward gongs, forward gongs, and, of course, the graveside-solemn spoken poetry, recited by the band's drummer, Graeme Edge.
"It sort of hit us during the sessions that it would be fantastic to have some spoken word that tied everything together," recalls Lodge of the grand tradition which became the band's calling card. But was the seamless cross-fading of each song merely a clever ploy to get the group's material on progressive American FM stations?
"No," reveals Lodge. "We just didn't want the music to stop." But it worked nonetheless. Deejays, needing to take an incredibly long dump, or hoping to put the moves on some cute little intern, used to let whole album sides of Moody Blues music flow by before cutting in. The critics, however, were a different story. Many could never make it past the stiff poetry, the ultraserious cover art, and the surly faces of the Moodies themselves lurking inside every needlessly gatefolded sleeve. One word: pretentious.
But the band was not without humor; even the Lizard King wasn't coming up with tongue-in-cheek lines like "Blasting, billowing, bursting forth with the power of ten thousand butterfly sneezes." As for being preachy, Lodge earnestly disagrees. "We put down in our lyrics what we believe," says he. "If some people think it's preachy, they have to believe that."
Whether preaching or thinking aloud, at least the Moody Blues weren't peddling wicked lyrical content. How many people sought enlightenment from Eric Burdon, only to find themselves stuck in Monterey married to "A Girl Named Sandoz"? Or the aforementioned cosmic folknik Donovan? How many innocent Children of the Sixties burned their fingers trying to smoke Chiquitas simply because he told them "electrical banana's gonna be the very next phase"? What about the Beatles? How many people had to get run over before someone decided--"Hey, maybe we shouldn't do this in the road"?
The Moody Blues, on the other hand, told us things like "thinking is the best way to travel," and "watch children playing, they seem so wise." You can't go wrong with that philosophy unless you think you're an airplane, or give your toddler the power of attorney.
Though Lodge admits the making of a Moodies album did not involve, oh, male-bonding retreats where hugging trees and sharing personal emotions were encouraged, there was always a bit of mystical tradition.
"We used to have a table we called the Magic Table that we sat 'round," he reveals. "That's where the songs were very first played. You'd feel very comfortable because it was the same table from the last album, and the one before that. You'd talk your way through the songs, 'Now, I want it to go this fast,' and tap the tempos on the table."
In 1974, after seven extremely popular albums, the band adjourned from the Magic Table and took three years off to record solo albums. That much of the Moodies' reputation still rests squarely on those first seven sojourns in sonic sorcery is clearly illustrated by Time Traveler's song selection: Three CDs cover the first 12 years of the band's history, while the following 16 years merit but one measly disc. When the Moody Blues regrouped in 1977, Britain's punk era was in full swing. True to form, the Moodies didn't suddenly start playing like the Buzzcocks, although Lodge now freely admits to "really enjoying listening to Motorhead in the car when no one's around." He waxes philosophical about knowing one's place in the pop pantheon. "Every generation has to have its own heroes, and there's nothing worse than somebody trying to be a hero for the wrong generation. If you stay true to yourself, you have a chance that new generations will pick up on you."
New generations did, despite the drastic changes that were under way within the group. For the first time since the Denny Laine days, the Moody Blues allowed themselves to be shown on the front cover of an album. Not only that, they ditched the paintings, the poems, and were now using the same art director as Linda Ronstadt, as if they were--ugh!--ordinary recording artists. It didn't help matters that after 1978's Octave album, the band's most cosmic member, Mike Pindar, bid adieu to pursue a quiet life in the States. It was Pindar who wrote the songs Most Likely to Feature a Sitar, and who was most vocal about his involvement with transcendental meditation, not unlike that other balding Mike from the Beach Boys. (To Pindar's credit, after "doolapping" his thinning hair for three albums, he let his bald dome breathe alfresco, while pesky Mike Love continued to embarrass his bandmates with a procession of silly turbans and caps.) The Moodies' 1968 album In Search of the Lost Chord contained helpful "you say mantra, I say yantra" information inside yet another wasteful gatefold sleeve, as well as Pindar's seven-minute "Om" opus. Moody watchers had to be worried now. With Pindar out of the picture, who gonna play dat lonesome ol' mellotron?
The lads were rapidly losing touch with the Magic Table, which now resided in the Moody Blues' Surrey garage. If that square piece of wood could've spoken, it would have told them not to enlist the services of Patrick Moraz, the poodle-haired piano man who ruined Yes' Relayer album with his Deodato jazz noodlings. This unfortunate choice, coupled with the advent of digital keyboards, served only to make the Moodies' sound a little colder.
Lodge 'fesses up to the crucial difference: "Because the mellotron is always slightly out of tune, when you put all the notes together, you get a nice, discordant sound. And the problem with digital keyboards is they're so perfect, they don't resonate at all between the notes. You get a lot of notes, but you don't get the big sound." If that's too technical for you to grasp, try imagining the difference between the drone of a common housefly and that of TV's Urkel.
For too many albums and too many years, the band employed sequencers, synths, used drum triggers and downplayed the mellotron. Even Justin Hayward's impeccable lead guitar took a back seat to the new technology. The Moodies' last studio album changed all that; Keys to the Kingdom turned the tide back to the glory days of yore--"it was antisequence and antielectronics," says Lodge. "Trying to get back to what we thought and I thought music is really all about."
Just the band, as nature and the Magic Table intended. Besides, you can't sequence an orchestra.
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"It's a nice way to celebrate Moody Blues music," says Lodge of both Time Traveler and the decision to tour with a symphony in every city. "It's how a lot of people want to hear our music."
Moody Blues fans are pretty vocal about how they want to hear their favorite Blues. So, unlike most boxed sets in the marketplace, precious little if anything on Time Traveler has been altered. "We've remixed a few things in the past and gotten angry letters from people saying, 'That drum fill is not on the original, and I don't want it on the remix!'"
Wouldn't a true Moody aficionado rather have two versions than one?
Lodge laughs. "They don't. It's wanted as is.